No Country for Old Men

No Country for Old Men

Written by Steven J. Carter |
Friday, May 5, 2023

When you are disappointed in ministry, don’t look with longing to the past. Set your hope on heaven, where Jesus reigns and actively intercedes for us, every day and constantly until he returns to judge the world. Be confident that his Mediatorial reign is perfect and wise. He has his purposes in the new mysteries of evil that cause us to question whether we are up to it. 

The Bible generally speaks well of old men. Think of the disaster it was when Solomon’s son Rehoboam, ascending to the throne, listened to the foolish advice of the young men surrounding him and rejected the wise counsel of the old men who had advised his father. It only cost him the unity of the nation and the end of any chance for a successful reign before he even got started. Or consider one of the names for the pastoral office: “Elder.” That name assumes the maturity and wisdom that generally comes only with age.

And yet, old men have their special challenges. The title of a movie by the Coen brothers signals this: No Country for Old Men. Tommy Lee Jones plays a sheriff at the end of a long career in law enforcement in the barren country of west Texas. He is an old man. He is starting to see criminal activity that he never saw before. So fearsome are these new criminals that he doubts he can cope with it. This is not just a case of nostalgia—the old sheriff longing for the good old days—which in reality were never very good after all. What Sheriff Ed Bell sees is a real decline of the moral order that is frightening and overwhelming. He begins to think he needs to retire; he can’t deal with what is coming at him anymore.

Even more important than the Coen brothers’ vision, Ezra includes an insightful detail about the old men returning with the exiles to Judah. It’s the story of a great revival, as the prophet Jeremiah had promised. When the exiles got back to the promised land, and the work on rebuilding the ruined temple began, it turned out to be a place where the old men had trouble:

‍But many of the priests and Levites and heads of the fathers’ households, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid (Ezra 3:12).

‍The text of Ezra tells us that while the old men were weeping, everyone else was experiencing something wonderful:

The priests in their vestments came forward with trumpets, and the sons Asaph with cymbals, to praise the Lord, according to the directions of David king of Israel (Ezra 3:10).

If you know anything about Old Testament history, you know that praising God at the direction of the priests, guided by the words of David, is at the very heart of what Israel was meant to be. This was a glorious event, especially coming after the dark days of the destruction of Jerusalem and the carrying away of the people of Judah to Babylon. Why couldn’t the old men appreciate it?

‍Old Age’s Downside

You could argue that the old men were simply guided by their wisdom, gained from long experience, so they wouldn’t get too carried away by the rebuilding of the temple. They had been there when the original built by Solomon was still standing; they had seen how great it was. They had a standard from their own experience to measure and evaluate the new temple. They knew what real glory was, and so they were not so simple as to be swept up in the enthusiasm for what was starting to rise again in Jerusalem. Their wisdom, gained by long experience, tempered their response to what the returned exiles were experiencing.

And it is true that people usually grow more conservative as they age. You know the proverb: “If you’re not a liberal when you’re young, you have no heart; and, if you’re not a conservative when you’re old, you have no brain.” The old men in Ezra’s record had become conservatives. They knew the old was worth preserving; they knew what a loss it was that something old was no more. They were inoculated against the naïve assumption that whatever was new had to be better than what had gone before.

It’s one thing not to be carried away by temporary and shallow enthusiasm for the latest new thing. It is surely a blessing of wisdom to be even-keeled when everybody else is being whipped up with excitement they’ll likely be embarrassed about in a very short time. But Ezra is pointing out a real downside to the perspective of the old: These old men could not enter into the joy of fulfilled prophecy. They could not see right in front of them an astounding work of God.

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